A beautiful day greeted us on our last full day in Tuscany 2013. We started the day right outside our rooms at our villa, harvesting olives on the villa, both mariaolo and frantoio, two major olives of the region. We received a lesson in the viticulture of olives, and learned that the mariaolo trees do not self-pollinate. We learned that pruning practices are very specific because the weather can be harsh and sometimes blow trees up by the roots. We picked or should say combed, 30 pounds of both varieties, clearly not enough for the yield we needed, but the hired field hands had already harvested nearly 10 times that much. Obviously we need more practice.
Anyway the first step in making olive oil starts in the field. Good organic farming practices not only ensures good oil but good stewardship of this beautiful country. Next we drove the short distance to the local “frantoio,” the word commonly used for “olive mill” in Italy, this one in the little town of San Polo, about 12 km south east of Florence. Here at Prunetti Frantoio, local farms arrange for an appointment to press their olives and by scheduling these, the olives are picked same day and held only a few hours before they are weighed, washed, sorted and press into the pristine oil. In some towns, we learned, the locals are not as picky and just drop off their olives to be pressed whenever they get to it. At some of these locations, olives might sit in the large tubs out in the elements for days. Each day olives sit without pressing increases the amount of acidity in the final oil. Better oils have less acidity. The older the olive before pressing, the more acid the oil becomes. However, lower quality oils actually have the same nutritional value, and the acidity provides a higher smoke point so a virgin, oil is a good cooking oil and not a big step down for some uses. The flavor may be a bit more mild and a little smoother and since not as expensive, people may use it more frequently.
So the facility in San Polo is the best example of an olive mill one could hope to find anywhere. They are not only dedicated to making the olive oil as good as it can possibly be, they are also good stewards of the land, recycling the olive waste by composting and enriching the land. The are also perhaps one of the most architecturally well designed and state of the art facilities we visited. Very streamlined and functional, but also perfectly designed. The two brothers who run it are well educated and have divided their duties so that each has become the most proficient at the tasks they do. One is the maestro who makes the oil. He knows just when to press, how much, as he controls the perfect temperature for extracting “cold.” The other brother is the one who has learned English well enough to be the sales side of the business. He travels and sells to Europe and America. These oils are consistently receiving the highest ratings over all other oils rated from Europe and America. Click here to see the actual process at Prunetti.
Next we watched our olives get sorted and washed. Then they were then sent through the press, followed by centrifuging. It was tasted by the maestro a few times before he called to our hosts to bring in their fusti, a stainless steal seamless milk-can-like container for catching the oil to take home. And there it was! Running very green from the spigots into the fusti, the oil delighted our hosts. Just the sight of it seemed to make them salivate with anticipation of this special oil on our menu that night. American guests who accompany us to Italy are often unfamiliar with this new oil, or olio neovo. Unless one lived near an olive grove in CA, one most likely never heard of it. Some olive growers now bottle it for sale, with an appropriate use by date of about 3-5 months only. The big difference with the nuovo oils is that they still contain the particulates from the pressing of the whole olives. There are leaves, stems and pits. These materials eventually fall to the bottom of the holding container and the oil is pulled off the top into bottles. That oil has a shelf life of a year or two, again depending upon how it is cared for. Oil in cans and dark bottles will fare better than those in clear bottles. Storing near heat or light can decrease shelf life too. So handling once it is home is also quite important. If one uses a fusti at home to hold the oil, one must invest in a canned gas product that will replace the oxygen as the oil is used and the air space above increases, more gas is needed. Oxygen is an enemy of oil too, just like with wine, but unlike wine, even when protected from oxygen abuse, the oil quality doesn’t get any better as time goes by. So best to plan on using it up. We are committed to using more olive oil than other oils in our food preparation, so it is easy to use a typical 25o ml bottle in a couple months. If you can, taste before buying and then only buy a small quantity until you see how quickly you consume it. Then buy the large more economical bottles. But do remember, once opened that oxygen situation happens and so best to use daily.
Why is it the best thing you can do for your health today, or so some doctors will tell us? Because it is full of antioxidants and advantages over all other oils. In fact, docs say just consuming 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil daily is going to improve your health. No need to anything else but why stop there. Continue to cook for yourself in the style we use at EVOO, i.e. whole foods, mostly plant based, and you will add even more benefits to your health. Use extra virgin oil, cold pressed and only buy from reliable sources, i.e., where they know when it was bottled and how old it is before you buy it. Because you know it will not age well in the bottle–best consumed same year it is pressed and bottled, or 1-2 years when the bottling is pristine, and no oxygenation occurs. Once purchased then use daily and protect it from light, heat and oxygen while storing.